Farming Tea in Skagit Valley

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richard sakuma tea plantation

the terroir and short history of Skagit Valley tea

STORY AND PHOTOS BY ADRIANA GRANT

 

Ask where tea comes from, and people imagine vast plantations in China, India, or Japan. But this common beverage doesn’t have to possess such an exotic provenance: Washington’s got its own, little-known, small-scale tea farm.

Located in Skagit Valley, Sakuma Brothers Farms is the only¬†commercial tea grower in the Northwest (It’s one of two in the nation; Bigelow Tea owns a farm in South Carolina). The family-run farm has been experimenting with tea for thirteen years, but they’ve only been selling it for three. They follow a meticulous growing, harvesting, and drying process, and offer green, oolong and white tea. For locavores seeking a dose of caffeine with a smaller carbon footprint, this is good news.

Most of the 1500-acre farm is dedicated to their cash crop, berries. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, along with apples, are available at their own market stand, at Kirkland and Edmonds farmers markets, and as u-pick fruit, with berry plants for sale as well. Fresh Sakuma Brothers berries are available at grocery stores across the country, and in Mexico, Canada, Europe, and Japan. Locally, you’ll find berries under their own brand at Thriftway and Town and Country Markets. Fruit is also processed on-site and frozen as a wholesale ingredient. Despite the focus on berries, five acres have been set aside for tea.

Richard Sakuma is a third generation Japanese farmer, whose family has been raising strawberries in the region since 1915, and on their current land since 1935. Sakuma’s father and uncles are the brothers in the farm’s name. It’s a family operation, but it’s Richard’s commitment that drives the tea business.

In 1997, Sakuma met John Vendeland, a man in the coffee and tea business, who had a vision to create a Napa Valley tea industry in the northwest. He imagined a series of tea farms with tasting rooms that would attract tea-lovers from British Columbia and Seattle. Vendelend had been cultivating tea in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but after a few cold winters there, he relocated to the milder Skagit Valley.

“He was looking for farmers,” Sakuma recalled, “who wanted to do a joint venture. So we met with him and joined up and he brought up [tea] selections that he thought would make it. We planted five acres with twenty-some different varieties.”

All black, white, oolong and green tea is grown from one plant species, Camellia sinensis, which as the name suggests, is a member of the Camellia genus. There are many cultivars of this one plant. Examining these cultivars both outside and inside the Skagit Valley hot house, it was possible to observe differences in color and size of leaves, shape of plant, and the relative health of different strains. Sakuma continues to learn which varietals fare the best on his farm. Like any other plant, tea is finicky about soil, irrigation, and fertilizer. Some varietals weren’t hardy enough to survive wet winters, while others were susceptible to blight. With more than a decade of experience, Sakuma is still an admitted newbie to the cultivation of tea, which dates to the 10th century B.C.

In June of 2009, after years of experimenting, Sakuma attended the week-long Taiwan Oolongs Study Tour, traveling to learn about the origin, history, and cultivation of oolong tea. In addition to studying tea’s cultural heritage, preparation, and flavor profiles, Sakuma explored processing methods, tasting techniques, and equipment used to heat, roll, and dry tea leaves. Growing tea is a labor-intensive job. It takes years for plants to mature, and, when harvest finally arrives, only two leaves and a bud are picked from each branch. “The only way you can pack out the thinnest leaves,” explains Sakuma “is to pack it out by hand.”

Until recently, most bagged tea in the U.S. resembled brown powder. Its source is the “fannings”, the name of the dusty waste product from whole-leaf teas. In its more traditional form, with loose, full leaves that unfurl under hot water, the handmade delicacy of tea offers a luxury experience, as it has been for most of its history.

Equipped with all the accoutrements of a formal tasting room, Sakuma hosted a tasting on-site. A multi-setting electric kettle controlled the brewing temperature, a timer managed the steeping time, and a delicate porcelain tea set contained the flavor of the tea through repeated steepings. Sakuma poured hot water over the cups as they sat on a slotted tray, to pre-warm them. Before he began making tea, he prepared the first batch of leaves to flush loose any debris and open the leaves.

“They say to rinse off the leaves, or wake them up with some hot water,” Sakuma explained. “Part of the process is to put hot water over the leaves and then pour it off. Then they are ready to go.”

Sakuma’s cultivars can be sold as green, oolong or white tea, depending on how they’re processed after harvest. Green tea is the least processed: it’s unoxidized and dried immediately to preserve the color and shape of the leaves. White tea is unoxidized and wilted, which means its leaves are allowed to soften before drying. Oolong is wilted, bruised, and partially oxidized (the tea industry calls this partially fermented). During oxidation, chlorophyll breaks down, tannins are released, and leaves turn from green to brown. Making black tea, which is fully oxidized, is a complex process that demands larger equipment and would involve embarking on a fresh set of experiments. Sakuma Brothers doesn’t offer black tea yet.

During the tastings, one tea stood out. Sakuma has created an exceptional white tea that rivals those harvested by producers with many more years in the business. It’s delicate, grassy, and complex, with a touch of honeysuckle. Sakuma’s previous tasters also found the oolong and green teas less remarkable than the white. The teas are currently ungraded, though Sakuma is looking into that process, which will formally compare his cultivars to those grown around the globe.

Sakuma has been pondering an idea that will charm fans of homegrown edibles: selling tea plants themselves. Cultivating your very own Camellia sinensis would allow you to pluck your own tea leaves, dry them yourself, and steep a fully homegrown beverage.

Like wine, tea exhibits terroir, in that its flavor, color, and aroma are distinctive according to where it was grown and processed. Factors like soil chemistry, precipitation, and lengths of season might express themselves in a cup, allowing you to appreciate the subtle flavors of where we live. It’s romantic to regard tea as an exotic commodity that travels half the world to reach your tea table; the idea of sipping a local valley that’s been steeped into your cup offers it’s own, more immediate, romance.

However, a Northwest Napa Valley for tea is still in the research and development stage. “Right now,” Sakuma explains, “we’re hoping to have created the beginning of the legacy of tea in the Valley.”

***Sakuma Bros. Farms tea is served at The Herbfarm, 14590 Northeast 145th Street, Woodinville, (425) 485-5300, www.theherbfarm.com. It’s also available at Miro Tea, 5405 Ballard Avenue NW, Seattle,(206) 782-6832, www.mirotea.com. During the summer, tea is available at Sakuma Bros. Market Stand, 17790 Cook Road, Burlington, (360) 757-8004, and at the Kirkland and Edmonds farmers markets. Online at www.sakumabros.com, green and oolong teas are $14.99 (28 grams), while white tea is $9.95 (one ounce).

For those who simply can’t wait to plant their own tea camellias, Rockridge Orchards sells them seasonally at their farmers market stands. They don’t bring the plants in every week; it’s best to call the farm and request plants be brought to a specific market. www.rockridgeorchards.com

 

Adriana Grant would not call herself an oolong aficionado, though she likes to the drink the stuff.¬†She’s a poet, photographer, and freelance writer, and just relocated from Seattle to Boston. (The espresso is as good, but composting has yet to catch on.) To see what she’s up to, visit adrianacgrant.tumblr.com.

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